BSTP: Sailships to steamships and Limited Liability.

The move from sail ships to steamships was driven beyond the technological developments by mail delivery (communication) and transportation of people. Sail ships remained a useful resource in heavy cargo with no time limits on delivery and only phased out with increased efficiency of steamships. The opening of global trade looked the world into steamships. The British empire used the technology to dominate global trade and maintain its leading position.

Adam Smith is a good read on the topic and somewhat founded the field of political economy. His main books where fighting protectionist tendencies in the British government.

The arise of new technology usually drives incumbent technologies to improve. Sail ships technology improved vastly and sail ships became very fast. Hybrids where developed to counteract the rise, but eventually steamships took over completely.

Steamships were not driven by military interested, but by commercial (cargo and people) and government interests (mail). Only when steamships were well established a military race ensued between German and British Empire. The commercial competition between those powers culminated in the Blue Riband Competition to have the fastest steamship to the US.

Another important transition was the disengagement between ship ownership and cargo transportation, allowing the creation of line services that operate independent of the cargo. Also, insurance for transport changed a lot in the consequence. Companies had to weigh the risk between sail ships and steamships. New institutions associated with increasing trade were also created.

Limited Liability

The general idea is that a person creating a company does not need to supply the capital to create the company. An external supplier can provide the capital and must take on the liability but only up to the investment. Therefore those companies had limited liability. Before any investor/owner was liable no matter how small his investment and the personal belongings could be taken as collateral. As a consequence risk-taking was encouraged. Limited liability emerged in the US as the US had less capital and needed to encourage capital from Britain to invest in the US.

Geels’ Technological Transitions and System Innovations

Technological transitions and system innovations: A Co-Evolutionary and Socio-Technical Analysis(Geels, 2004)is a mandatory reading of the core course Bridging Science, Technology and policy. The book analyses how technological changes transform societal functions such as transport, communication, housing and energy supply. According to Geels social and technological aspects are always intertwined and constitute each other. The book claims an interdisciplinary background in its qualitative work where (at least) evolutionary economics, innovation studies(Godin, 2012), sociology of technology, and complex system theory come together.


The focus of the book is to explain transitions from one socio-technological system to another. Specifically, it address the impact of technology beyond its product and process innovations and into the realm of societal functions. Only human agency, social structure and organisations provide technological artefacts with purpose. Artefacts exist within a specific context which needs to be understood to fully understand an artefact.

A technological revolution (e.g. the development of the car) is a major transition in a socio-technological system. The transition often leads into a more complex system and often different technologies co-evolve (roads, fuels, engines, etc.) to produce the technological revolution. It also required new policies (side of driving, driving permits, speed limits, fuel taxes, etc., but also fuel stations, fuel acquisition) which often respond to the technical revolution. The set of policies is increasing in complexity over time as more requirements emerge in response to previous policies. Technological revolution is often socially resisted and changes the social landscape. The car was considered too fast in the beginning and later on became a status symbol.

Fridges and laundry machines emerged only in the mid 20th century. They reduced the work load on women and enabled them to start working as less manual work was needed in house holds. The emancipation of women (a landscape development) was a social driver (of the socio-technical regime) but also beneficiary of the technological development (the technological niche).

The main argument of the book is “that technologies emerge in little bits and pieces and humans start to combine them. Some survive and some disappear. Those who survive drive social change and eventually reshape the society.”


Geels, F. W. (2004). Technological Transitions and System Innovations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Godin, B. (2012). “Innovation Studies”: The invention of a Specialty. Minerva, 50(4), 397–421.